Saturday, February 9, 2013


Landlocked away in western Africa, surrounded by countries with more familiar names, Burkina Faso lies on the southern edge of the Sahel – the transitional area between the Sahara Desert and the Savannas. Susceptible to seasonal droughts, deforestation and a high risk for communicable diseases, the country’s vital statistics are often heartbreakingly dismal: 9th highest infant mortality rate, not enough doctors, only 6 years of school life, a life expectancy of only 54 years, 4th highest birth rate, 8th in the world for children under age 5 to be underweight, 21% literacy rate, 47% live below the poverty line, 77% unemployment rate, only 11% of the total population has access to clean water and sanitation.

But it’s not all bad news. The name Burkina Faso comes from two of the main native languages in the country: Burkina means “men of integrity” in Mòoré; and Faso means “fatherland” in Dioula. Its capital Ouagadougou [this is the French way of spelling of Wagadugu] is derived from the Ninsi tribal language meaning “where people get honor and respect.”  The city lies pretty much in the center of the country and has about 1.6 million people.

Originally this land was the home of the Mossi peoples. There were several Mossi kingdoms spread across the area, but two of the largest and more powerful were the Wagadugu and the Yatenga. Later, the French arrived and declared it as a protectorate in 1896, renaming it Upper Volta. It was named after its proximity to the Volta River Basin (which there is actually a Black Volta, White Volta, and a Red Volta River).  In 1960, the country officially declared its independence from France and governed itself under the name of Republic of Upper Volta. There were a series of coups and the constant changing of regimes, followed by and resulted in decades of governmental instability. It was President Thomas Sankara who changed the name of the country to Burkina Faso in 1984 (who ended up being killed in a coup three years later).

Because the French had taken control of the area for so long, French is considered the official languages. Ninety percent of the people speak African languages that belong to the Sudanic language family. However, three of the most-spoken languages are also officially recognized as regional languages: Mòoré, Mandinka, and Bambara.

As far as religion goes, there’s a saying in Burkina Faso that pretty much sums it up: “50% Muslim, 50% Christian, 100% animist.”  For the majority of Burkinabé people [Burkinabé is the word used to describe people, things, and the culture of Burkina Faso], they may choose to either be Muslim or Christian, but they will always maintain a connection with the spiritual traditions of their ancestors.

Because the country lies in the Sahel region, there is a definite rainy and dry season. This affects crop production drastically, and they constantly suffer from the results of drought. Many Burkinabé choose to leave the country in order to get work, mostly to Côte d’Ivoire or Ghana. There is some gold mining done in Burkina Faso, and they rely on gold exports as well as exports of cotton, their main cash crop.

The AIDS prevalence is 1.2%, twice what it is in the United States [four times more than Canada; six times more than the UK], but it’s towards the lower end compared with other African countries. This certainly affects other aspects of health and socioeconomic statistics and general quality of life standards. However, a UNAIDS report in 2011 reported that there has been a significant decline HIV/AIDS in pregnant women for those who attend antenatal clinics. Another highly disturbing statistic is that over 72% of girls and women have suffered from female genital mutilation (according to a 2005 WHO report). This practice is found from the Horn of Africa up through Egypt and across the Sahel countries. From the efforts of a brave few, now many countries, including Burkina Faso, have now enacted legislature against this horrific unnecessary practice.

If I remember my basic French, I think it says "AIDS is a reality. I'm informed,  what about you?" Or something.  
I’m excited to take a new look at this lesser-known country, to explore its culture and its almost-undiscovered beauties.  As I’m slowly finding in this world, people are amazing in their tenacity to maintain the gumption used to create beauty in art or music or create a delicious meal despite the sometimes bleak situations that are handed to them through no fault of their own. Since I’ve already picked out my recipes – which sound really awesome – I’m excited to come back to an area of the world that has increasingly grown on me: West Africa.

Up next: Holidays and Celebrations

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